Stranger Than Fiction: Space Miners Wanted

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An illustration of a water-rich asteroid, provided by Planetary Resources.
An illustration of a water-rich asteroid, provided by Planetary Resources.

For my first post at Amazing Stories, I was looking forward to getting a chance to introduce myself and my background, to exploring some deep conceptual physics issues at the fringe of our understanding of the universe and how they tie into science fiction. Maybe quantum computers or parallel universes. But we have plenty of time to cover these bizarre fundamental physics concepts, to explore the realm of the quantum multiverse. There’s something much more pressing before us now … a true case of science fiction becoming science fact.

Because it’s now possible to apply for a job as an asteroid miner! I just can’t pass up a story like that on my first time writing for Amazing Stories!

Yes, that’s right, you can apply to be a real, honest-to-goodness asteroid miner. Who would hire you to do such a thing? The answer to that is: Planetary Resources, the company founded by Peter Diamandis of the X-Prize along with some other bright people … the least brilliant of whom may well be Avatar-creator James Cameron. (Google co-founder Larry Page is also on board as an investor, showing that even the investors are of high calibre.) Various tech billionaires announced back in April 2012 that their company was forming with the intention of mining asteroids.

The plan is ambitious. Planetary Resources’ first stage plans include launching space-based telescopes which would have the ability to identify valuable asteroids … which, in and of itself, would be an impressive feat and provide useful scientific information (if the data is made available to scientists, that is). The ultimate goal is to begin mining platinum-group metals from the asteroids. This family of metals are useful in various technical applications, like medical devices and renewable energy equipment. Here’s a good article from Wired that lays out the specifics (such that are known, at least), from back when the announcement was made in April 2012.

Oh, my God ... It's full of asteroids! - Courtesy of Planetary Resources
Oh, my God … It’s full of asteroids! – Courtesy of Planetary Resources

Their plans continue to progress, it seems, because they’ve recently outlined what they’re looking for in their post “How to be an Asteroid Miner” over on their website, and the checklist of traits demonstrates that this isn’t just your average asteroid mining opportunity:

  1. You’re a joy to spend time with, and you bring energy to the team. You’re willing to be wrong, but confident when you’re not.  You motivate us to learn from one another, and you make us want to be better at what we do.
  2. You are brilliant.  The kind of brilliant your family brags about, your teachers are proud of, perhaps irritates your friends, and sometimes makes your significant other feel awkward.
  3. You have a driving passion to explore space and open our next frontier.  For you, this is not a passing interest nor a mere fancy, but a life-altering obsession.  This is your reason for being.

Part of the reason they’ve posted this is that they have a Science Fellowship available … which, if I were a college student, I would be all over. Seriously, whipper-snappers, listen to an old man with a wife and children who prohibit him from going into outer space: if you are a “passionate and capable Geology, Planetary Science, Astronomy, and Astrophysics student of Junior, Senior, or graduate standing” then you should apply for this!

For those of us who are a bit past our college days, there are still other opportunities available, especially for applicants with strong engineering backgrounds. (General job application tip: don’t jump onto their public comment thread and begin whining about how they never responded to your application. As someone who has interviewed candidates in the past, this does not help your prospects. Ever.)

Of course, Planetary Resources isn’t the only asteroid mining gig in the solar system. No, I’m serious … there’s another company that’s also doing this. Deep Space Industries is focusing their initial mining on water, which seems a bit unusual. “The company plans to convert space rock water into rocket fuel, which would be used to top up the tanks of off-Earth satellites and spaceships cheaply and efficiently.” (Space.com) It’s a huge investment, given that we don’t yet have any customers who need space-based fueling stations … but I guess this is part of the “If you build it, they will come” business model.

As an example of the sort of financial return that might be expected, they’ve recently announced that the 2012 DA14 asteroid that is coming within 18,000 miles of the Earth on Friday, might be worth as much as $195 million (though astronomer Michael Busch says this is “far too optimistic” when actually using science, called spectroscopy, to determine what’s in the asteroid).

Instead of looking for a team of quirky asteroid miners to send into space, Deep Space Industries is instead targeting 2015 for the release of “a phalanx of small, robotic prospecting probes called Fireflies in 2015” (to again quote Space.com). Absolutely brilliant! If all goes well (and what could possibly go wrong in launching a phalanx of small, robotic prospecting probes), the actually mining could potentially start as early as 2020.

I have no idea if either of these organizations have a technological, economic, or legal hope of achieving their goals, but what I do know is that I love living in a world where considering stuff like this is even a possibility. In my monthly spot on this blog – which, starting in March, will be the second Thursday of the month – I will be covering scientific concepts that are (usually) even more mindblowing than the idea of using asteroid water to fuel spaceships. I look forward to having you along for the ride!

And if you do apply for an asteroid mining position, let us know if you get an interview.